The race is on for the slickest, hippest, icy-hottest designer bar. And with every opening, along come the scenerati, swooping down in fragrant gaggles to appraise the lighting, the finishes and the low-slung modern furniture. It's as if each new high-concept club is a walk-through Design Within Reach catalog built specifically for the hard-drinking set.

Despite the deafening buzz, it's all become a bit...samey though, hasn't it? Yet, if there ever were a qualified entrant to the contest, it would have to be Dan Zilka's new restaurant/lounge, Aura.

You could say Dan knows a little about Portland nightlife. He not only owns Panorama, but also the Fez Ballroom, Boxxes, the Brig, Fish Grotto and Red Cap Garage. A seasoned businessman up to his bedroom eyes in market trends, he's seen clubs come and go (and come back again, as in the case of Panorama). While he'd originally intended Aura to be one more danceteria in his empire (the space used to be a canvas warehouse and a Methodist church), Dan has chosen instead to launch a hybrid supper club, with multiple lounges, a dining room and, maybe, a dance floor. That iron-grid catwalk? "That's just for walking," says Dan.

So I had to ask him: Did the Methodists make him deconsecrate the ground? "No, no," Zilka soothes. "We're redeveloping the spiritual nature of the place."

Aura's concept is based loosely on the auras associated with the seven chakras--passion, wisdom, energy, blah, blah, blah--with color-coded cocktails to match. The menu design (by packaging designer James Parker, who also did the branding and signage work) continues the celestial theme, with tinted cards tiered on a plex-and-steel placard. And though the place might feel like a night owl's nirvana, Zilka actually intends people to eat here.

"A dance club gives you two or three hours of heavy traffic two nights a week," says Dan. "This is such a large, beautiful space, we took a more flexible approach."

In other words, picture a gutted warehouse--exposed brick, old-growth beams--that has been gracefully carved into smooth, terraced vignettes. A dining room with curtained banquettes at the front, a sunken lounge in back, a mezzanine level with nubby charcoal settees.

High-concept alert: The downstairs lounge is screened from the dining room by three translucent rotating panels that are rear-projected with continuously shifting images. Trippy. In fact, the five projection "modules" planned for the screens are designed to move from "floating" to "tripping" as the dinner hour drifts into party time according to the man behind the screens, and one of the bar's co-designers, AdCreep Inc.'s Todd Hartke.

Amid the other sophisticated choices made by Zilka and interior designer Randy Stigmeyer (of Firm 151)--sloping walnut veneer, backlit bar made from thousands of julienned acrylic rods, martini-glass chilling trough--there are refreshing bits of visual humor. Two-way mirrors in the bathroom let dudes at the urinal spy on their dates out in the bar. A "kinetic color" system creates "envelopes of light" which allow the ambient lighting of each area to change from royal blue to orange or green almost imperceptibly--much as your mood ring might after getting a parking ticket.

So I guess that means the severe white-and-gray palette on the walls and fixtures is there to allow the color to come from the light, right?

"And from the people who come to share the space, of course," adds Zilka. Of course.

1022 W Burnside St., 597-2872. 4 pm-2:30 am Tuesday- Sunday. Opens Thursday, April 24.

Last Thursday Fashion Show at Gold

Beehived and beflowered models will perform a streetside showcase of original designs from Gold and vintage wear from neighboring resale store Retrospect.

Gold, 1524 NE Alberta St., 284-4645. 7:30 pm Thursday, April 24.

Call for Designers

Local independent clothing designers sought for upcoming fashion show at Level. For details, stop by 13 NW 6th Ave. Friday or Saturday nights between 9 pm and 3 am. Ask for Monica.

Buffalo Benefit for Earth Day

Buffalo Exchange will host a Dollar Day Sale to benefit the Buffalo Field Campaign.

Buffalo Exchange, 1420 SE 37th Ave., 234-1302. 10 am- 8 pm Saturday, April 26.